New research reveals wellbeing toll of Melbourne’s toughest COVID-19 restrictions on practitioners responding to family violence

Practitioners working across family violence support services have felt like someone “poured a heap of concrete” on their shoulders as they struggled with increased workloads, concerns about clients’ trauma and isolation from co-workers during the Melbourne lockdowns.

In a report released today by Monash University’s Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre in partnership with Domestic Violence Victoria, practitioners said they have missed collaborative practice, support and advice from their team, with debriefing identified as a hugely important tool to manage the intensity of their work and practitioners’ own wellbeing and self-care.

Their experiences were captured in When home becomes the workplace: family violence, practitioner wellbeing and remote service delivery during COVID-19 restrictions, led by Dr Naomi Pfitzner with Associate Professor Kate Fitz-Gibbon, Dr Jasmine McGowan and Professor Jacqui True.

The report presents the findings of a statewide study into the wellbeing impacts of working during the COVID-19 restrictions on Victoria’s specialist family violence and men’s services sector, alongside an exploration of the challenges and benefits of delivering services remotely during this time.

It draws on insights from a survey of 113 Victorian practitioners responding to family violence, along with focus groups with 28 practitioners from specialist family violence and men’s services during July-August 2020, the period in which Victoria re-entered Stage 3 and later Stage 4 restrictions and called a State of Disaster.

Practitioners described how stay-at-home orders blurred the boundaries between work and home life, which led to family violence work tainting their ‘safe spaces’ and even impacting the lives and wellbeing of other household members including children.

Almost 70 per cent of practitioners surveyed reported moderate levels of burnout.

They also expressed fears about clients’ safety where only remote services could be offered.

This was viewed as particularly challenging for practitioners who are managing heightened client risk while working remotely from their homes without the in-person support of colleagues.

Dr Pfitzner said practitioners are frontline workers who, like health and emergency services workers, deal with trauma and abuse regularly.

“To date, the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health and wellbeing has been somewhat overlooked,” she said. ”Family violence practitioners emphasised that like all Victorians they are working and living through the pandemic, and experiencing the same general anxiety and stress but with the added burden of working out of their living rooms or bedrooms alone, on personal laptops talking about highly emotional, traumatic and violent situations.

“Practitioners are typically able to lean on colleagues for support and debriefing. For many family violence workers, being cut off from colleagues physically has been detrimental to their wellbeing.”

Associate Professor Fitz-Gibbon said the quality of care provided to people experiencing family violence depends on the health and wellbeing of practitioners who do this crucial work.

“Even just the loss of the car ride or commute home has had an impact, with the opportunity to switch off or put distance between work and home,” she said.

“This is a female-dominated workforce managing home schooling and caring responsibilities while also responding to people experiencing and using family violence. Practitioners cannot see clients in real life so they’re reliant on newly developed remote service delivery models and digital technologies to assess safety and risk. We have no blueprint for how this can be done successfully but what our research shows is that supporting the wellbeing of practitioners will be critical as we move forward.”

On a positive note, practitioners said remote service delivery models during the pandemic had increased service accessibility for both service users and providers, with virtual platforms enabling delivery to a greater number of clients with less resource allocation.

“As Victoria moves through the easing of restrictions and attempts to achieve a COVID-normal working environment in the midst of a global health crisis, it’s vitally important we understand the wellbeing supports required to ensure effective and sustainable practice for family violence practitioners,” Dr Pfitzner said.

Researchers said the widely reported increase in family violence prevalence during the pandemic had necessitated a requirement to do everything possible to support the wellbeing of practitioners responding to victims / survivors as well as men using family violence during this period.